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Study Finds Hands-Free Laws Not Reducing Crashes

A driver uses a cell phone while driving to Seattle in August 2008.
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Above: A driver uses a cell phone while driving to Seattle in August 2008.

Call all you want.

Crystal Thompson of Del Mar will not be answering her phone. She says she follows California’s hands-free law to the letter. But, is she any safer on the road?

A report released late last month by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) found California’s new hands-free law has not reduced the number of crashes.

The study shows no significant change in the number of motor vehicle accidents before the controversial law took effect in 2008 and after. The report also compares changes in collision claims in jurisdictions with hands free laws to jurisdictions without and found little difference. Researchers used controls for other possible changes in collision trends unrelated to hands-free laws like distance of commute, seasonal changes in traffic collisions and driving patterns.

HLDI is an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit organization that compiles data on property damage, injuries and death from vehicular accidents. Both organizations are supported by nearly 80 percent of the nation’s automobile insurers.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute, was quick to say that the study does not imply cell phone use while driving is not a distraction or a danger.

“Cell phone use may just be one small piece of the puzzle,” Radar said. “Whereas there are lots of different distractions on the road, cell phone laws are just addressing one slice.”

In the City of San Diego, the total number of reported traffic collisions has decreased slightly. According to the San Diego Police Department, there were 11,947 reported traffic collisions in 2007 and 10,359 crashes in 2009 after the law was enacted.

During that time, police wrote more than 16,400 citations for several hands-free violations such as the use of cell phone without a hands-free device while driving, text messaging while driving and the use of cell phone while driving when under 18 years of age.

Enforcement of the new laws seems to have increased dramatically. The first hands-free law was in effect for half of 2008 and nearly 2,800 citations were written. Projected across 12 months, that total would have been around 5,600. In 2009, SDPD wrote 13,515 citations for hands-free violations.

Though the HLDI study concluded there is no evidence the law is helping to reduce crashes, some experts say the data did not involve a large enough sample size. Rader said the data included about 1.7 million claims.

SDPD spokesperson Gary Hassen said the data can be misleading because people do not always admit to driving while using a cell phone when they’re involved in an accident.

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